by Simon Brett

Murder rates always rise during the Christmas holiday period, and Greg Lincoln was determined to add to them. Just by one. The additional statistic would be his wife Shelley.

It’s not on Christmas Day itself that the bulk of the murders happen. Most relationships can survive the enforced bonhomie for sixteen waking hours (particularly when some are spent comatose in front of bland television). It’s in the days afterwards, the inert sag between Christmas and New Year, that’s when people turn homicidal.

The Lincolns had married because Greg had been attracted to Shelley’s money, and Shelley had been attracted to ... Actually, Greg never knew exactly what it was in his character that had attracted her. He had reasonably good looks and suave manners, but even he recognised that he had no moral qualities whatsoever. Still, Shelley, a good Catholic girl, had agreed to marry him. Maybe he was the only man who had ever asked her. The fact had to be faced, she wasn’t that pretty. But she was beautifully rich.

She was also rather mousey, which suited Greg very well. He’d never wanted a wife who would be too assertive, or who might question the lifestyle choices he had made. In this sense, Shelley was perfect. She never suggested—as some wives might have done—that perhaps he ought to do some work and thereby make a contribution to their mutual finances. Nor did she show unhealthy curiosity as to how he spent his time away from home. She accepted his mumbled excuses about “going off to play a round of golf” without ever wondering why the golf bag in the boot of his BMW still looked as fresh as when it came out of the shop. Shelley’s lack of curiosity was convenient, as it was years since Greg had stepped inside a golf club. And the only “playing around” he did was in the bedrooms of bored Sussex housewives.

Perhaps, he sometimes idly wondered, Shelley was unsuspicious simply because she was so preoccupied with her two obsessions. The first of these was her Catholic faith. To Greg, who had never believed in anything except for his own superiority, this was no more than a puzzling eccentricity. Shelley’s second obsession he found equally inexplicable. Gardening. Greg Lincoln’s lips could not shape the word without an expression of contempt. To him one plant looked much like another, and none of them was very interesting. But to Shelley, her inheritance from her parents, not Lovelock Manor itself but the garden surrounding it, was her raison d’etre. She was never happier than when spending long hours with her gardener Dan in his shed, discussing their plans for the forthcoming season.

Though unable to understand his wife’s horticultural obsession, Greg concluded with a mental shrug that it didn’t do any harm. And, so long as the garden kept her from taking too much interest in his activities, it was all fine by him.

So that was the Lincolns’ marriage, no better and probably no worse than many another. Greg had announced early on that he didn’t want to have child-ren, a decision that Shelley, though it challenged her Catholic principles, had greeted with characteristic meekness. They still had occasional sexual encounters, on days when Greg hadn’t managed to find a convenient bored housewife, but with decreasing frequency. Whether Shelley enjoyed these interludes, or regretted their dwindling away, Greg had no idea.

And so their marriage rubbed along. And might have rubbed along for a good many years, but for one thing.

Greg Lincoln fell in love.

It was unwished-for, it was inconvenient, but it was a fact. Greg, who had never regarded women as more than means of gratification, had fallen head-over-heels in love.

Inevitably, the woman he fell for was as tough and cynical as he was. Vicki Talbot. They’d met at a pre- Christmas drinks party. She had had in tow a husband called Alan, in whom she clearly took as little interest as Greg did in Shelley. A few drinks and a quiet chat in a kitchen sticky with mulled wine led to an agreement to meet the following afternoon for what both knew would be a sexual encounter. Like Greg, Vicki showed no coyness. She had no illusions that there might be anything romantic involved, while Greg looked forward to carving another notch on his metaphorical bedpost, before moving on to his next conquest.

And yet, from the moment he had made love to Vicki Talbot, he could not eradicate her image from his mind. At the age of forty-six, Greg Lincoln, hard-bitten, self-serving Greg Lincoln, had fallen calamitously in love. Not the kind of warm love that might make him feel good about himself, but an obsessive, jealous love, over which he had no control. Thoughts of what Vicki might be doing when he was not with her burned like hot wires through his brain. The idea of anyone else just being in her company, let alone touching her ... He tried to force his mind away from the images that tortured him, but to no avail. Greg Lincoln was hooked.

The agony had been increased by the fact that, after a series of torrid, snatched encounters running up to the holidays, he’d actually had to meet Vicki socially on Boxing Day. A drinks party given by mutual friends, an occasion of jaded bonhomie, no one really yet ready for another celebration after the excesses of Christmas Day itself. It was the kind of occasion at which Greg could normally excel, drinking too much, patronising Shelley, getting cheap laughs from his less quick-witted friends.

But at this drinks party he was like a coiled spring, his mental radar aware only of where Vicki was standing, who she was talking to, who placed a casual hand on her arm. He thought he would explode if he couldn’t get just a moment alone with her. The prospect of their reaching the end of the party, of Vicki being whisked away by the odious Alan with nothing more than a communal wave and wishes for “A Happy New Year,” was more than Greg could bear.

There were moments at the party when he thought Vicki was feeling the same pressure. At times he thought he could read an undercurrent of anguish in her jokey social manner, but he couldn’t be sure. Though it had never bothered him much before, he was brought up hard against the impossibility of knowing what went on inside a woman’s mind.

They did get their snatched moment, ironically in the kitchen, mirroring their first fatal encounter.

“I need you,” Greg hissed in desperation. “I have to be with you all the time.”

“Nice idea,” said Vicki, in a manner that sounded sincere, “but there is a problem.”

“What? There’s no problem we can’t get round.”

“Shelley. You can’t be with me all the time if Shelley’s on the scene.”

“It’s the same with you and Alan.”

“No,” she said contemptuously. “I only stay with Alan because I have expensive tastes, and he can afford to cater to them. With you and Shelley it’s different.”

“What do you mean?”

Her grayish-blue eyes found his. “I mean that you and I can’t be together unless Shelley is out of the equation.”

Further intimate conversation was prevented by the entrance of a very drunk Alan. “You two having a secret snog, are you?” he asked with a guffaw that cut through Greg like a serrated blade.

For the next twenty-four hours, he kept trying to analyse the four words Vicki had spoken. “Out of the equation.” What did they mean? That he should leave Shelley? He could do that readily enough. That he should divorce her? Shelley’s Catholicism might make that more difficult, but it was not insoluble.

Greg Lincoln, however, knew Vicki had meant more than that. Coming so close to the reference to her expensive tastes, there was only one conclusion that could be reached. Greg had no money of his own. Divorce from Shelley would leave him virtually penniless. But were Shelley to die, he would inherit all of her estate. At the start of their marriage they had made wills, each naming the other as sole beneficiary. All at once the meaning of the phrase “out of the equation” became blindingly clear.

Once he had decided to murder his wife, Greg Lincoln felt a lot calmer. And he started to think in a very logical way.

The most important consideration was that Shelley’s death should look like an accident. And ideally should happen while her husband was absent from Lovelock Manor. His plans would be ruined by any suspicion attaching to himself. Shelley would have to die, Greg would have to play the grieving widower for a suitable length of time (or at least till probate on the estate was sorted out), and then he could be with Vicki Talbot forever.

He spent most of Boxing Day evening striding restlessly around Lovelock Manor, assessing various forms of

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